There are many ways to tell the story of the Civil War and RTÉ has opted for the most straightforward and least imaginative. The third episode of the Irish Civil War (RTÉ One, 9.35 pm), narrated by an increasingly grumpy-sounding Brendan Gleeson, traces the horrific final years when both the rump IRA and the forces of the new Free State committed unspeakable atrocities.
Yet the wrenching horror is not lingered upon and instead the story follows a linear route. In so doing, the film is doomed to plod rather than pop. All three hours – broadcast from Sunday through to Tuesday – would make for an excellent study aid for anyone getting to grips with the basics of the conflict.
But on the 100th anniversary of the war, it lacks the visceral punch for which we might have hoped. It’s all a bit Open University when what the occasion perhaps required was a descent into Ireland’s own Heart of Darkness.
Still, the facts on their own are dreadful enough. As the rebels retreated into the hinterlands and waged their guerrilla campaign, the brutality of the new state’s response escalated. In Kerry, one of the last strongholds of the anti-treaty IRA, the savagery knew no limits.
“We were marched into a lorry and taken out to Ballyseedy. Up it went. I went up with it of course,” says Stephen Fuller, the lone survivor of the 1923 Ballyseedy Massacre in which eight prisoners were tied to a landmine which was then detonated. Fuller, later a Fianna Fáil TD, somehow survived and listened as his comrades were shot to ensure they were dead.
It’s a horrific testimony – taken from archive footage – and the film could have done with more of the same. Instead, we are told how awful the Civil War was by a who’s who of modern historians who pop up like C-List Channel 4 celebrities discussing Britpop or Gazza’s tears at Italia ‘90.
Along with the sadism and the executions, there was unleashed a terrible wave of sexual violence. This was “used to purge local communities of families considered not to be loyal”, says historian Margaret Ward.
It is a topic that merits further scrutiny – especially in light of the Constitutional misogyny that would be ushered in by the Free State and then copper-fastened in de Valera’s 1937 Constitution. But The Irish Civil War is in a hurry to get to the finish line. So, it’s on to the surrender of the anti-Treaty forces, the formation of Fianna Fáil and the coalescence, out of all that death, trauma and religiosity, of the Ireland we know today.
The film has a ready-made ending as we count down this Christmas to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – those irreconcilable foes, hatred forged in blood – playing pass-the-parcel with the office of Taoiseach. And yet, for all its sprawl, over three nights the documentary never rouses itself out of a grim box-ticking. It’s a lecture set to video rather than a definitive survey of the war. By the final credits, even Brendan Gleeson sounds ready to check out.